HL Deb 06 February 1991 vol 525 cc1156-8

2.41 p.m.

Baroness Strange asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the Shetland sand eel fishery will be closed for a period sufficient to give the bird populations which are dependent on sand eels time to recover.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (Lord Strathclyde)

My Lords, the Shetland sand eel fishery has been closed since June 1990. It is proposed to keep it closed in the whole of 1991 and interested parties are currently being consulted about this. The lack of availability of sand eels as food for birds is a result not of fishing effort but of poor recruitment arising from natural factors outwith our control.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for his encouraging reply. I believe that the lack of sand eels is mainly due to fishing. Will he consider keeping the ban for over two years in view of the fact that the life cycle of the sand eel is two years? If the ban continues for more than two years, there may be a chance for stocks to begin to recover.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, as I said, there is a government proposal, which is currently up for consultation, to decide whether or not to keep the sand eel fishery closed. My noble friend said that fishing has depleted the stocks. There does not seem to be any real evidence of that.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, does the Minister consider that the interested parties would include the sand eels and the birds?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, part of the democratic process is not to consult those who do not have a vote.

Viscount Mills

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that it is not intended to continue monitoring the Shetland sand eel stock using the same methods and at the same present level? If so, how will one know when the sand eel stock has recovered to a level sufficient for the fishery to be reopened?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, a considerable amount of research is being carried out by my department, the Department of the Environment and the Nature Conservancy Council in order to decide how to count the numbers using samples and, therefore, to reach a figure. Previous methods have been adequate but the situation is continually under review.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, is the Minister aware that between 1985 and 1989 there was a catastrophic reduction in the catch of more than 30 per cent., from 35,000 tonnes to 24,000 tonnes? It is difficult to say whether that was caused by lack of reproduction or by overfishing. However, has the Minister received representations from the Shetland fishermen—few boats are involved—about compensation as a result of the closure of the fishery this year and perhaps next year?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, last year only two fishing boats were directly involved in fishing for sand eels. However, they fish for other species and therefore at present there is no question of paying compensation.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, the Minister referred to the lack of evidence as regards the extent of the damage done by sand eel fisheries. He also said that research is still being carried out. Did any other factors come to light during the course of that research? Many of the birds that are affected are not entirely dependent on sand eels. There must be evidence of other factors, although the lack of sand eels must have had an effect.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct. The problem does not lie with the sand eel or its eggs, but with the larval stage in between. That suffering could be caused by other predators; for instance, herrings, seals and other fish. Other birdlife and environmental factors such as the changing pattern of sea currents in the area may also be involved. All those issues are being investigated carefully. When we have decided what the problem is we can ascertain whether there is anything that we can do about it.